In 2001, Serena Williams was heckled by the crowd at Indian Wells, Calif., as she defeated Kim Clijsters in the final to claim her second title. She vowed never to play there again. But on Friday, in her first match at Indian Wells since that day, Williams was welcomed with a standing ovation.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said after her second-round victory against Romania’s Monica Niculescu (7-5, 7-5) in the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. “In the last couple of moments leading up to it, I was focused on warming up for the match and I wasn’t really prepared for that. I was overwhelmed by it.”
The events of 2001 loomed over Williams’ appearance. Here’s what happened during that tournament: Williams was due to face her sister, Venus Williams, in the semifinal. But Venus withdrew from play minutes before their faceoff, citing injury. There was speculation at the time that their father, Richard Williams, directed Venus to default. Tennis fans, who weren’t warned of the match’s cancellation, booed Serena, who was 19 at the time. Richard Williams said he heard racist taunts from the crowd.
“I was crying in my towel at the changeover,” Serena Williams told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer in 2009. “I would cry, and I knew that I had to go on.”
The sisters vowed never to play at Indian Wells again.
But on Friday, The New York Times reports, the reception was different:
“As she emerged from the tunnel into the night lights, she slid her headphones around her neck in time to hear sustained applause from the crowd, which gave her a one-minute standing ovation. An African-American girl held aloft a sign that read, ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ where the Williamses lived in California when they were her age.”
Reuters adds: “One fan yelled out ‘We love you Serena’ during the coin toss and she received repeated calls of ‘Come on Serena’ throughout a topsy-turvy match that lasted a little more than two hours.”
“I felt like I made the right decision (to come back) and I knew I wanted to do it. Williams, the world No. 1, said after the match. “I knew I really wanted to do it. But up until that moment I didn’t really know if it was the right thing for me to do. That’s when I felt it was the right thing.”
Venus Williams and Richard Williams are continuing their boycott of the tournament.